There is a lot of discomfort circling the world right now. 2020 definitely hasn’t been a year of cozy living, that’s for sure.
A series of natural disasters, thousands dead thanks to the COVID-19 virus and an economy moving towards the brink of collapse is how the year started.
Now, halfway through 2020, we are seeing daily protests and riots raising awareness on racial injustices. It’s not an easy thing to live through.
This latest topic of discord, however, has struck a particularly serious chord with me. It is a topic that has occupied my thoughts for some years now.
Ever since I became aware of the fact that I had unintentional racial biases and started actively exploring where they originated from.
My own experiences with racism
I’m white, I have blue eyes, light brown hair, food, a roof over my head, some savings, currently 1.75% interest on my student loan and a master’s degree.
Quite arguably that puts me in one of the most privileged positions on this planet.
I am not going to sit here and pretend that I know what it is like to be an African-American living, or in George Floyd’s case, dying miserably in the US right now.
Nevertheless, I can honestly say that I have personally experienced a number of acts of discrimination and racism throughout my lifetime.
That’s regrettably what happens right now when you live in, and travel to, as many countries as I have.
My most vivid personal experiences with racism happened when I was living in South Korea. I was there for almost 3 years.
It was the first time I was living in a country where being white actually made you a minority. The experience was eye-opening to say the least.
- I would walk on the street and people would look at me funny because I was white
- Older men would proposition me like a cheap hooker, because I was white and, therefore, obviously a Russian prostitute (they said as much in Korean when they thought I couldn’t understand them)
- I was openly told that dating a Korean man from a good family was “out of the question” because I was not Korean
- A man once also made a beeline for me while there was nobody around. He bumped into my shoulder so hard it hurt – and then kept on walking as if nothing had happened
Granted, these are all relatively mild examples of racism. I don’t believe, for example, that any of these incidents had the potential to end my life.
However, I believe, they were acts and evidence of racism nonetheless. And the thing that scares me about them is that if I had never experienced them first hand, I may have never recognised them as such.
As is the case with so many things in life. You can’t really and truly understand something until you’ve actually experienced it.
Racism in every day life
Racism is something that happens every single day. It most likely happens in every single country in the world too.
I believe, as long as there are beings that look, think and act differently to one another, there will be discrimination of some sort.
Mainly, because most people are raised to be naturally reactive. They learn to just follow taught behaviours and mindlessly act upon personal feelings and instincts.
Many won’t ever question their irrational thoughts and actions enough to realise that they may be a part of an issue. Even fewer will put in the effort required to successfully make a change.
There are also many overt, and covert, racist, and discriminatory cultures and norms in our societies today.
Many of which, we may not realise we have. Some of which we may even consciously or unconsciously promote.
Hands up if you’ve ever sung eenie, meenie, minie, mo?
Congratulations, you’ve just continued spreading a song of racist origin!
Now, I know when I was a child, I sang the song and it went “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo – catch a tiger by it’s toe – if he holler’s let him go – eenie, meenie, minie, mo”
Animal cruelty aside for now, I had no idea it was originally a racist song. I was a kid – I had rainbows to chase and dolphins to impersonate.
However, for anyone who does know its origins, innocently counting “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo” can potentially serve up painful memories that remind them of inequalities that are still very real today.
Believe me when I say that words are powerful. Racial misunderstandings happen ALL THE TIME.
If we want to get real deep, we could probably even say that racism in and of itself is a misunderstanding.
(There’s a very interesting dissertation on this topic if you happen to have some time…)
Racism in perspective
Racism is real and we have a problem. That much is clear. How much of a problem we have though – that was my first question when the riots started.
It may sound cynical, but I believe that the media is not our friend. Many stories get skewed. They get blown out of proportion, or distorted. The media is certainly not neutral.
That being the case, my first action was to look up statistics. They always seem like a good place to start, when digging up some truth.
Statistics on racism in the US
Looking at statistics, and public opinions, on racism in the US, the gravity of the situation quickly becomes clear.
According to a data simulation in the 2019 article by Edwards, Lee and Esposito, 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by the US police.
Put into perspective, that makes black men in the US 2.5 times as likely to be killed by policeman in their lifetime than white men. That’s a pretty big difference.
After reading this, I wanted to see how this statistic held up against other races too. After all, there are more races than just blacks and whites in the US.
Looking at the statistics on people shot by the US police from 2017-2020, one sees that white people are actually the most commonly shot race in the US.
However, given the fact that the US population is estimated to be 76.5% white (July 2019), this should come as no surprise.
What does come as a surprise, is the fact that blacks, according to 2019 statistics, are 30% more likely to be shot than hispanics.
Given that hispanics make up 18.3% of the US population, and blacks only 13.4%, that shows a huge bias towards the killing of black people.
This naturally begs the question – why is that?
Racial History in the US
I think many people will be aware of the fact that the tensions between black and white people in the US date back a very long way.
In fact, they date all the way back to the colonial era, way back in the 17th century.
A time in which white Americans were granted legally and socially sanctioned privileges and rights that were denied to other races.
Privileges and rights that are arguably very important. For example: education, immigration, voting rights, citizenship, land acquisition etc. (In case you were not aware, this is what people are referencing when they talk about ‘white privilege’)
Slavery was officially abolished in the US in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. That was 155 years ago.
Given the rapidly increasing human lifespan throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s also roughly 6 generations ago.
Generational impacts on change
Reading up on the history of black emancipation in the US, I started realising why it is we haven’t come further than we have already.
It’s because, when you really think about it, 6 generations is a pretty short timespan for lasting change.
Mainly because the way people think, act and feel about their lives is heavily influenced by their current life circumstances, but also by their most recent ancestors.
Consider how many generations you currently have alive and kicking in your family right now. I have 3 generations. However, my cousins have 5.
As such, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that blacks and whites, living in the US today, will still be heavily influenced by the thoughts and acts of their ancestors 6 generations ago.
And this poses a problem because:
I believe racism is a social construct that is fed down each generation
When the laws changed to abolish slavery, that didn’t actually mean that everybody was ok with that change. In fact, many will have been against it.
Especially those who now had to release their slaves and pay for labour, which could significantly impact their livelihoods, lifestyle and future prospects.
This will, no doubt, have created a lot of insecurity, but also a lot of resentment.
It will also have presented a radical change, that many people, who were black, white or otherwise, had no say over.
Radical changes = radical situations
One of the things that needs to be understood with regards to racism is that the radical actions we see today are a struggle to gain or re-gain access and power.
When slavery was accepted, whites held most, if not all of the access and power.
They had the ‘right’ and the ‘privilege’ of deciding if, and when, they wanted to treat their ‘property’ with respect. They could also freely decide what access and privileges to grant them.
Basically, they had the legal and personal right, and ability, to construct an environment that suited their own unique tastes and preferences.
Then, from one day to the next, that liberty was removed.
They lost their power. They lost their control. Now they also had to share their access.
Consequently, many people will have lost a significant part of their income and fortune in the process. This will have created a lot of insecurity, resistance and resentment.
Liberated slaves, on the other hand, will have faced a very different problem. They may have been freed, but now they would have to fend for themselves too.
Previously their masters dictated what their lives should or shouldn’t look like. They would provide housing, food and clothing. If they were lucky even some education.
However, now released slaves would need to find a way to provide all that for themselves.
They would also need to do so in a society where those who were releasing them (and consequently had the most to lose) also controlled all of the access to resources.
I can’t imagine that will have been a comfortable situation to be in.
No common goals = no big change
How many times have you heard older people complaining about things that happened 20, 30, 40 years ago?
Events long gone and yet the negative impact on their lives is still fresh and alive in their minds. It is as if it all happened yesterday.
Humans have long memories when it comes to situations and changes that are forced on them. Especially when they feel like the outcome didn’t serve them well.
Successful change really only happens when people see a value and benefit in making that change.
It is for that reason that I believe 6 generations is not a very long time. Especially when it comes to erasing the horrific circumstances associated with slavery and oppression from the collective memory of the US population.
In my opinion, one of the reasons the US is still struggling with racism to the extent that it is, is because blacks being considered as a part of the population as a whole is a relatively recent event.
Slavery may have been abolished in 1865, however, racial segregation was only brought down in the 1960s. That’s less than 2 generations ago.
Furthermore, I believe, that it is only in the 1960s that society collectively agreed to strive towards making human beings equal, regardless of their race.
That’s also one of the things that makes these latest riots so significant in my mind.
I believe, that it’s the first time the US will be filtering racial events from the perspective of ‘how are we going to achieve our goals?’.
Now that it’s clear – to many blacks AND whites – that the goal actually IS equality.
The significance of feeding racism down the line
I believe, that even if the US were to find a way to magically fix all of the rules, and institutions, preventing races from obtaining equality, racism itself would not go away.
My reason for saying that is that, in my mind, racism is perpetuated not only through societal rules and institutions, but by how people individually see, think, talk and act on each other too.
Currently, 155 years after the abolishment of slavery, the privilege, and superiority of the white race, in the US, is still largely accepted, as the norm by most races.
This becomes very apparent when you watch social experiments like the doll test video, where you see black children choosing white dolls as the ‘pretty, nice, good’ dolls.
It is also something I have experienced a lot travelling abroad myself.
I have oftentimes heard non-white people describing themselves in ways that show they consider themselves ‘lesser’ than whites.
Before I became so aware of racial issues, I used to link this back to their own low self-esteem.
Since I’ve become more aware of racial inequalities, I have realised it’s more likely linked to their personal experiences, and what they are taught on a daily basis, at home and in society.
However, it took travelling and educating myself to realise that I have this thing called white privilege.
That’s not something I was ever taught. I’m also sure I’m not the only white person who can say that.
The fact is that we all live in a complex structure of norms that are ever changing.
It takes time AND repeated and persistent action, for people’s and societies’ mindsets to shift from one position to another.
We are also deeply influenced by our experiences and those our ancestors had in the past. Research proves this repeatedly.
- Children from families who have educated parents are more likely to get an education themselves
- Those from rich families are more likely to be rich themselves
- Children from ‘intact’ families are more likely to be successful than those from divorced families, in many areas of life
Therefore, it makes sense that it has taken as long as it has for minorities to climb out of situations of inequality.
It takes an EDUCATION to understand that equality is desirable, it takes CONNECTIONS to realise equality is possible, it takes RESOURCES to pull families up in society and it takes INFLUENCE, NETWORKS and LEVERAGE to challenge old societal norms.
More and more blacks are achieving these wins in the US. I believe, that’s why society as a whole is starting to see equality as more acceptable.
Strong and visible black role models like Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Barack and Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes etc. pave the way daily.
They give credibility and influence to their race, which makes the population as a whole consider them differently to before.
However, there are also plenty of examples of individuals who are less educated, less visible, less successful, and less strategic, who ultimately work against their race’s future well being too.
And there are still plenty of white people who feel insecure, threatened, challenged and annoyed by events that challenge their status and white privilege too.
Changing the familial and societal dialogue
This brings me to the final part of my post.
The part where I tell you that I believe that the end of racism starts with each individual.
I believe that it starts with YOU.
As a white person, in a position of privilege, I have committed to changing my ancestor’s racial dialogue on a familial and societal level.
I realise I have racial biases. However, I work regularly to understand them and prevent their perpetuation to my friends, family and acquaintances.
I may not be the one at the picket line demonstrating right now. However, I am a person who believes that effective change comes in many different shapes and forms.
Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has their own ways to reach people.
Personally, I like to encourage change through my writing, dialogues and leading by example.
What I do to support the end of racism
I grew up in a household where people are tolerant of non-white races, but the message has always been “stick with your own kind”.
Living the life that I have, however, I have purposefully chosen to instead surround myself with all that is different.
I choose diverse friends
My circle is filled with people from all walks of life. Those who surround me come in many different colours, ages, races and from a variety of backgrounds too.
For the most part this is intentional. I want, and seek out, the diversity.
My friends and acquaintances are my greatest teachers in many ways. They also enrich my life and knowledge to no end.
One thing I make a point of doing regularly, however, is to introduce my friends to one another.
Mostly they will be from different countries, cultures, races and backgrounds and have a diverse set of stories and outlooks to share.
This being the case, our get togethers often make for an enriching experience on all sides.
When I go travelling I often tell stories of my experiences in different places and with different people.
I share my views, preach tolerance over violence and encourage understanding over hasty reactions.
Personally, I believe this is a great way to lead by example. After all, when you’re telling a story you’re showing someone how you did something.
They can choose to follow the example, or go their own way, but either way they are exposed to a new view.
I educate myself
One of the things I am passionate about in life is learning more about myself, others and how we all fit together.
In terms of racism, this has meant that over time I have become increasingly aware of where I may have conscious or subconscious biases that influence my life.
When I identify a bias, I take note of it and also decide what to do with it. In some cases I decide to expand my views, in others I simply vow to not perpetuate the bias further.
The main thing, however, is regularly challenging thoughts and actions that seem instinctive – and replacing them with thoughts and actions that serve you and those around you in society best.
I look to support others
When people reach out to me for support, as long as it is in my power to do so, I will look to support them.
Sometimes this means helping them personally. Other times it means finding someone who can help them better.
I believe in using my network for good – and that is irrespective of your race or background.
Since networks are how knowledge and influence are spread, I think this is a great way to give people a leg up when they need it.
My challenge to you
I believe racism is a big topic. I also believe that it will take repeated action from many people to ensure racism is eradicated once and for all.
However, if you have made it this far, one thing I would like to encourage you to do first, is to look at your own circumstances and see how you can help the effort.
If you are a minority, find organisations that can help you help yourself and/or those around you.
- Get an education
- Learn about your own biases, insecurities and unhelpful beliefs
- Be intentional with what you say or do to avoid spreading racial prejudice or insecurity in your own friends and/or family groups
- Make non-minority friends who can share their experiences, influence and networks
- Let people know when you need a helping hand
If you are white (or the majority race in your country), realise that you are privileged and have the power to help others.
- Diversify your friendship groups and activities
- Learn more about your privileges and biases
- Be intentional with what you say or do to avoid spreading racial prejudice or insecurity in your own friends and/or family groups
- Offer your support to those from minority groups (e.g. support minority friends, businesses and organisations)
- Let people know you are willing and able to help
I realise that everyone will have their own thoughts on what I have written today.
You may like and/or agree with what I have written. Or you may find me to be completely uninformed, idealistic and/or out of touch in some way.
Regardless, of which side you land on, I am curious to hear your thoughts.
For what I have written today, I have written based on my own thoughts and experiences to date.
However, I like to think I am open to changing my views too. You may need to educate me on why I need to first though.
I’ll be the first to admit though: I don’t know everything!